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12 Thrilling Facts About Rear Window

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Alfred Hitchcock taught us all the dangers of spying on your neighbors with his 1954 thriller, Rear Window. The single-set movie concerns L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a photojournalist stuck in his apartment thanks to a broken leg. He accidentally witnesses what he thinks is a murder, but must prove to the police, his nurse Stella, and his girlfriend Lisa that he isn't just imagining things.

Rear Window features performances from Hitchcock regulars Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly and couture costumes from fashion icon Edith Head. But before you settle in for 112 minutes of claustrophobia, here are a few facts about the movie’s gossip-laden production.

1. THE ORIGINAL STORY DOESN’T INCLUDE LISA OR STELLA.

Rear Window was based on Cornell Woolrich's short story, “It Had to Be Murder.” In Woolrich’s version, the voyeuristic protagonist does not have a girlfriend or a nurse, although he does have a “day houseman” named Sam who checks in on him. Oh and his leg injury? It isn't explicitly mentioned until the very last line.

2. ALFRED HITCHCOCK WAS INSPIRED BY TWO ACTUAL MURDER CASES.

Although John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplay for the movie, Hitchcock helped with the actual crime at the center of the story. As he told François Truffaut, he lifted two news items from the British press: the 1910 case of Dr. Hawley Crippen and the 1924 case of Patrick Mohan. Crippen killed his wife, told friends she went to America, and then aroused suspicion by flaunting his secretary around town. Police later found body parts in the Crippen home and arrested the doctor for murder. (Some now believe Crippen was innocent.) Mohan also dismembered his pregnant girlfriend, throwing pieces of her body out a train window. But he didn’t know what to do with her head, and it was this gruesome detail that inspired Hitchcock to include a plot thread about digging up the neighbors’ flower bed for evidence.

3. GRACE KELLY TURNED DOWN THE LEAD IN ON THE WATERFRONT TO STAR IN REAR WINDOW.

In the fall of 1953, Grace Kelly was offered the female lead in two films: one was Rear Window, the other was Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Although she was dying to work with Hitchcock again, On the Waterfront would’ve allowed Kelly to stay in New York, which she preferred to Los Angeles. Still, she ultimately chose to play socialite Lisa Fremont over blue-collar Edie Doyle. Instead, the part went to Eva Marie Saint, who would become a Hitchcock blonde herself with North by Northwest.

4. HITCHCOCK MODELED THE VILLAIN ON A PRODUCER HE HATED.

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Hitchcock had a long-standing grudge with his former producer, David O. Selznick. The director believed Selznick had meddled too much with his movies, so much so that Hitchcock effectively disowned his first film with the producer, Rebecca. His ties to Selznick ended with the 1947 movie The Paradine Case, though, so Hitch decided to enact a sly bit of revenge onscreen. It involved Raymond Burr, the actor playing Rear Window villain Lars Thorwald. Hitchcock gave Burr glasses just like Selznick’s and curly gray hair to match. He also instructed Burr to adopt many of the producer’s mannerisms, such as the way he cradled a telephone in his neck. When all was said and done, Burr’s murderous character looked a lot like Selznick, no doubt to the producer’s supreme annoyance.

5. JIMMY STEWART’S WIFE DIDN’T WANT HIM TO MAKE A MOVIE WITH KELLY.

Before she was Princess Grace of Monaco, Grace Kelly had a reputation (whether true or not) for having affairs with her male costars—even the married ones. One of those men was Ray Milland, whose spurned wife just happened to be good friends with Jimmy Stewart's wife, Gloria. Gloria was less than thrilled at the prospect of her husband working with Kelly, and developed a bit of paranoia. According to True Grace: The Life and Times of an American Princess, Gloria was on set constantly, watching for signs of an affair. Nothing materialized, although Rear Window cast member Thelma Ritter confirmed that Kelly was a huge flirt. “I think it took [Stewart] back to his fancy-free, footloose bachelor days,” she said. “I don’t say he flirted, but he didn’t seem to mind it, either.”

6. “MISS TORSO” WAS A TEENAGE BALLERINA.

Georgine Darcy was 17 years old when she was cast as “Miss Torso,” Jeff’s dancing neighbor. Hitchcock picked her out of a pile of publicity photos; hers apparently caught his eye because she had paid extra for color prints. Darcy was fairly new in town, having left her home in Brooklyn just the year before to pursue ballet in California. So when Hitchcock met her, he suggested she get an agent. She didn’t, though, and was subsequently paid just $350 for her work. (That’s about $3150 in today's dollars.)

7. THE “SONGWRITER” WAS ALSO ONE IN REAL LIFE.

Ross Bagdasarian played the pianist neighbor who is frequently seen composing new pieces. The credits bill him as “The Songwriter,” which is pretty appropriate, considering what Bagdasarian did when he wasn’t acting. He was also a pianist and composer himself, and made his name by creating Alvin and the Chipmunks. But before he recorded “The Chipmunk Song” in 1958, he helped Hitch with his Rear Window cameo. Watch the Songwriter’s apartment and you’ll see a portly fellow winding his clock.

8. JEFF AND LISA’S ROMANCE IS SUPPOSEDLY BASED ON A REAL INGRID BERGMAN FLING.

Rumor has it that Jeff and Lisa were based on war photographer Robert Capa and Ingrid Bergman. The pair dated while Bergman was filming Notorious with Hitchcock in 1946, so he saw the relationship firsthand. The affair ended within a year, but it clearly struck a chord with Hitchcock, who had what many described as an "acute, unrequited passion" for Bergman. Like Jeff, Capa was a photojournalist who lived in Greenwich Village. And in a particularly eerie twist of fate, they both suffered leg injuries while on the job.

9. THE ELABORATE SET COST SERIOUS CASH.

The apartment complex seen in Rear Window was completely constructed on the Paramount Studios lot—and it cost a pretty penny. It reportedly cost an “unprecedented” $9000 to design and $72,000 to build. (About $728,805 total, when adjusted for inflation.) The final set included seven apartment buildings and three other buildings on the other side of the street. It also boasted 31 apartments, although only a handful were fully furnished.

10. IT’S THE ONLY FILM WHERE KELLY SMOKES ON-SCREEN.

Kelly refused to smoke cigarettes in her movies, but she made a slight exception for Hitchcock in Rear Window. In one scene, she’s seen with an unlit cigarette between her lips. The camera cuts to Stewart, then back to her. She’s suddenly holding a lit cigarette, which she soon puts out. This way, Hitchcock got his smoking scene, while Kelly never technically broke her rule.

11. HITCHCOCK DELIBERATELY MISDIRECTED HIS ACTORS FOR LAUGHS.

Each neighbor has a hook: Miss Torso is a dancer, Miss Lonelyhearts is severely single, the Songwriter is, well, a songwriter. Then there’s that random couple sleeping on the fire escape. Actors Sara Berner and Frank Cady played the unnamed pair, who spend most of the movie fidgeting on a mattress outdoors without incident. Until it rains. For this scene, Hitchcock intentionally messed with his actors. He told Berner to pull the mattress one way and Cady to pull it the other. Neither one knew the other had received conflicting directions. So when Hitchcock called "action," the pair struggled with the mattress until Cady accidentally flew into the window. Hitchcock thought it was so funny, he kept it in the movie.

12. THE BOOK LISA READS AT THE END IS A FINAL WINK.

In the final scene of Rear Window, Lisa is seen reading the book Beyond the High Himalayas by William O. Douglas. Douglas was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1939 through 1975, but Lisa wasn’t skimming that book for legalese. Douglas suffered from polio as a child, and was told by doctors that he would be crippled for life. But after taking up hiking, Douglas discovered that a) he could definitely walk and b) he loved nature. He wrote a few books about his adventures as an ode to the great outdoors. Beyond the High Himalayas was one of them.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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